C.J. Howard races at the 2022 USA Cycling Para-cycling Road National Championships. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Team USA Para-cyclist C.J. Howard admits the backstory of how he landed on the world championship team sounds a little wacky.
Howard is new to competitive cycling, having taken up the sport last year as a hobby to supplant his love for climbing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the indoor climbing facilities around his hometown of Sacramento, California, struggled to stay open during the pandemic, so Howard knew he needed to channel his athletic energies elsewhere.
He started working with a coach seven months ago, with an eye to start racing. His training progressed enough that he entered the USA Cycling Para-cycling Road National Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July.
He wasn’t expecting much, with the hilly course and a high heat/humidity combo possibly turning his C4 road race into a slog.
Howard won the national road title and finished second in the time trial. As a result, he was named to the U.S. world cup and world championship rosters.
The UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships take place Aug. 11-14 in Baie-Comeau, Quebec, preceded by a world cup event Aug. 4-7 in Quebec City.
“This is all so foreign to me, I never expected any of this to happen so quickly,” said Howard, 39. “If you had told me 20 days ago, I would be part of Team USA, I would have laughed at you and said no way. I hoped, like part of my long-term planning and goals, that someday I would get to be on Team USA. But with the caliber of athletes on Team USA, you can’t assume something like that could happen.
“It’s all settling in. When you get a Team USA swag kit in the mail, and you’re holding it in your hands, wow.”
Howard, who lost his left foot and part of his leg due to cancer 20 years ago, has always been athletic. He loved competitive running in high school and college, doing middle distance. After his cancer, he kept running, covering distances from 5 kilometers up to half marathons.
Howard’s interest turned to adaptive climbing, making that his next “obsession.” Howard jokes that he chooses an obsession per decade, going from running in his 20s, mountain climbing in his 30s, and now on the verge of 40, cycling.
Howard, a public health consultant, admits he has a lot to learn about elite Para-cycling. Acknowledging that success takes the right equipment, strategy, proper conditioning and a will to win, Howard said he brings the will, and the rest are works in progress. He upgraded his bike, needs to upgrade his prosthetic, and really works on his strategy and technique.
“I’m just riding by feel right now, that’s what I did in Chattanooga,” he said. “I’m trying to clear my mind and not thinking about anything other than, ‘Can I go harder? Like for the next three minutes?’ That makes it work for me. But I have a ton to learn. Especially in time trial.
“I mean, let’s get real; I didn’t even know what a power meter was a year ago. I need experience; I am here for all of it. I want to learn, get better and see where this can go.”
Howard taps into his previous competitive athletic experiences to help drive his cycling. He loves spending hours training on his bike, something his younger self would have hated.
“I would have told you to go away if you wanted me to spend 3-4 hours riding in a morning, that would have been nonsense to me,” Howard said. “Now, it’s so much fun. I truly love it. When I get into something, it’s a passion. I do it all the way. I now have four bikes in the garage, and I am all in.”